Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention: A Guide for Educators, Parents, and Students
Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent
If you or someone you know needs help now, please contact a helpline.
Suicide is a challenging topic to tackle. We want to think that our students, children, or classmates can’t be affected by it, but it’s sadly a common occurrence among young people. To prevent suicides, we need to educate ourselves about the topic.
This article will provide an overview of indicators for suicidal tendencies, information on how to recognize suicidal tendencies, and resources to find help for your student, child, or yourself.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between ages 10 and 34 in the United States.
- Recorded suicides as young as aged 5 – 9 are less frequent but still occur at a rate of 0.31 per 100,000 children and disproportionately affects boys.
- Suicide rates among Black children between 5-11 years old are double those of white children.
- Among American Indian and Alaskan Native populations, suicide rates are higher than the overall U.S. rates between ages 5 and 44, with rates peaking in adolescence or young adulthood—ages 15-24 and 25-34.
Top Seven Indicators for Suicidal Tendencies
It’s important to note that “indicators” for suicidal tendencies don’t necessarily lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. Additionally, indicators aren’t causes of suicide. Instead, they’re signs that there’s potential for suicidal tendencies. While these indicators should be monitored, be careful not to make assumptions based solely on them. You don’t need to hover over the person who has these indicators, but keep your eye out to see if they lead to worrisome actions.
Teachers should also look out for each other as well. The challenges students face in school as it relates to depression and anxiety can also affect teachers. While stressors might be different, indicators can be similar to what you see in children.
Suicide deaths rarely have one singular cause, and blaming every suicide death on mental health conditions could contribute to stigma around these diagnoses.
– Seth Abrutyn, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, as paraphrased by Time Magazine
1. Substance Abuse
According to the American Addiction Centers, one in 10 young adults (age 18 to 25) has an alcohol abuse disorder, and one in seven has a substance use disorder. While these statistics look at the use and abuse by young adults, the disorders can show up among younger people, especially those who begin experimenting with substance use at an early age.
Experimentation is relatively normal among young people, but those who start very young are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders as they grow up. A Kelty Mental Health Resource Center article provides an overview of substances to be aware of and stages of substance use with which parents and teachers can become familiar. You can keep clear lines of communication open with young people in your life by having open and honest conversations about substance use.
2. Access to Means
Studies have shown that reducing access to means of suicide (firearms being the most common) can lead to a decrease in the possibility of suicide attempts or completions. Additionally, young people are notably more prone to impulsive actions. If they have easy means for suicide attempts, they’re at a higher risk of carrying out the actions in moments of “acute psychosocial stressors.”
3. Traumatic Events
Trauma comes in many forms. Sadly, one of the most common types of trauma among children is abuse. The Centre for Suicide Prevention highlights that children who have experienced abuse are at a much higher risk of attempting suicide. Additionally, one in five children who experienced terrorist violence will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is linked to suicide ideation.
4. Family History of Suicide
Studies have shown that suicide has the potential to run in the family. However, it’s important to note that familial ties related to suicide are often linked to other mental health issues. In this case, the history of suicide in the family might help you identify hereditary mental health illnesses in your child, which you can learn more about below.
5. Previous Attempts
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry notes that previous suicide attempts are a potential risk factor for future attempts: 37% of people who attempt suicide try again within a year.
6. Mental Illnesses or Mood Disorders
Studies have shown that the majority of people who die by suicide suffer from mental disorders (and some statistics show that it could be up to 90%). Children also can have mental illnesses: at least one in five young people between nine and 17 years-old has a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Here are some mental health disorders commonly associated with suicidal thoughts. Note that while this list doesn’t include them explicitly, mood disorders (e.g., anxiety, attachment disorders, and eating disorders) should also be monitored. Additionally, you shouldn’t be quick to attribute certain behaviors to mental illness. The right medical and psychiatric professionals should be the ones to determine the diagnosis.
Common Mental Health Disorders Related to Suicide
Borderline Personality Disorder
BPD is tricky to diagnose because symptoms can be linked to any number of factors, but it usually involves a prolonged display of strong feelings or behaviors that range from intense feelings of sadness or anger, to worries of criticism or embarrassment, to acts of self-harm. The onset of BPD symptoms can occur at a young age, typically during adolescence.
As a type of mood disorder, depression usually manifests as a low mood that lasts for many weeks that makes day-to-day functioning difficult for a child. There is no typical age of onset, but according to CDC statistics, 1.9 million children in the U.S. between the ages of three and 17 have depression diagnoses.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
People usually experience PTSD after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event such as sexual violence or serious injury. It can also occur because of many traumatic events, whether major or seemingly minor, that added up over time. (This variation is known as C-PTSD; though this isn’t yet officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, psychologists generally acknowledge its existence, even if they can’t provide an official diagnosis). Children react very differently to their trauma, so there aren’t consistent indicators, but parents and teachers who know a child has experienced trauma can be tuned into their behaviors.
Schizophrenia affects a person’s ability to understand reality and is often displayed through irrational behavior or psychosis. Symptoms of schizophrenia often begin during adolescence.
7. Suicide and the LGBTQ+ Community
It’s important to emphasize that merely identifying as LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean someone is prone to suicide. However, because societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community still has a long way to go, many people mistreat young people who don’t identify as straight or cisgender. This mistreatment can lead to mental health challenges that increase the risk of suicide.
If students are surrounded by a safe, supportive, and loving community of adults and peers, the likelihood of suicide is much lower. Many of the causes of depression or mental illness among LGBTQ+ youth come from harassment. This harassment comes in many forms, including physical threats by others. The CDC reports that 34% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were bullied on school property, and 28% were bullied electronically, such as through social media. Students surveyed were also 140% more likely to skip a day of school each month because of safety concerns. This fear can lead to trauma linked to depression, substance abuse, and other behaviors related to suicide.
For more ways to support the LGBTQ+ youth in your life, check out our guide.
How to Recognize Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors
Many, though not all, people who attempt suicide will give some kind of warning beforehand. The signs and signals can vary, and not everyone will show all the signs.
Recognizing Suicidal Thoughts in Your Students and Loved Ones
Understanding the indicators listed above can help you identify warning signs. According to SAVE, AFSP, and Bridges to Recovery, there are some common signs that your loved one might be considering suicide.
- Talking openly about wanting to die or not having a reason to live
- Displaying feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about being a burden on their loved ones
- Isolating themselves from their friends and family
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Sudden calmness after a bout of depression
- Making preparations such as getting personal paperwork together, giving away personal belongings, or saying goodbye to friends and family
- Displaying anxious or reckless behaviors
- Participating in dangerous behavior or carrying out self-harm
Recognizing Suicidal Thoughts in Yourself
It might seem to an outsider that it would be easy to identify suicidal thoughts within oneself, but that’s not always the case. For so many people, thoughts of suicide can start as subtle and difficult to recognize. If you have any of the indicators above, it’s especially important to check in with yourself regularly—though none of them guarantee you’ll experience suicidal thoughts.
Because some suicidal thoughts can be a bit under-the-radar, here are some signs that your thoughts might be more serious:
- An increasing sense of hopelessness, worry, and/or an increased sense of guilt
- Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than normal
- Crying more than usual
- Feeling like the only solution to your problems is death
- Talking or writing about death or suicide
- Participating in risky and dangerous behaviors
- Collecting potential means of suicide (e.g., weapons or medicines)
- Making preparations such as giving your things away or saying goodbye
- Having thoughts about how you would take your own life
- Wishing you could “just end the pain” or “make this feeling stop,” even if you don’t think about death itself
If you notice any of these warning signs, reach out immediately to the closest hospital or other suicide helplines from our list of resources below.
Before It Happens: Talk to Kids About Suicide
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, suicide needs to not be a taboo subject—talking about the topic can help the young people to recognize the signs and know that you’re someone they can trust to help. If you’re a teacher, encourage your school to offer professional development for your staff and a curriculum for them to use to teach students about the topic in an age-appropriate way. If you’re a parent, it’s important to not hide the information if a loved one dies by suicide, particularly if the death is of a family member, as suicidal tendencies can be genetic. Young people should know they need to look out for the signs of them in themselves, just as they would if there was a family history of diabetes. A few suggestions for how to have this conversation are:
Ask Kids What They Know
Kids may already have a strong understanding of suicide, have no knowledge of it, or may think they know what it is but have only learned stereotypes and half-truths. Meet them where they are and clarify issues.
Stick to the Facts
It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and stigmas regarding those who consider, attempt, or complete suicide, such as calling them “selfish” or saying they “made a bad choice.” Choose kindness, always, and give only facts rather than your own opinions.
Explain That Suicide Is Part of a Disease or Disorder
Particularly when a child is young, it’s best to explain suicide as part of a sickness.
Talk About Overcoming Obstacles
“There is some suggestive evidence that narratives or stories about resilience have potentially positive effects….telling the story about kids who have pulled through these struggles, and there are ways to get help,” says Abrutyn.
Talk to Teens Like Adults
Teens are smart, and they know when they’re being talked down to or having things hidden from them. Talking to them like you would an adult makes them understand you see them and their potential struggles as real. Encourage them to open up when, not if, they struggle—all teens struggle—and if they’re worried about the safety of a friend or themselves. “I am not going to consider it a fail if you have mental health problems,” is a line suggested by parenting expert Deborah Gilboa.
A Note to Administrators
Be sure your staff is trained on how to have these conversations. Additionally, don’t assume your staff members have no personal experience with the topic. Provide frequent breaks during the training, make it clear they can take additional breaks if needed, and provide an open door and additional resources if they need to talk to someone afterward. Invite them to speak with you if they feel uncomfortable having this conversation with their students, either because of their past or because they don’t feel well-trained enough. This topic can be triggering for some, even for teachers, and it’s essential that they feel safe.
What to Do if You Believe Someone is Suicidal
It’s important to understand that it’s never your fault if a friend or loved one attempts suicide. However, if you recognize warning signs, there are ways to help them if you can.
If you’re worried that bringing up the subject of suicide could do more harm than good (i.e., inspire considering suicide), you can rest assured that it won’t. Conversations like that don’t plant the idea; they give a name to what people may already be feeling and an opportunity to get help. For example, kids as young as five can have thoughts of suicide without even knowing what the term is. What reaching out to someone who might be suicidal can do is show them that you’re a safe person to talk to.
Steps Adults Can Take to Help Suicidal Young People
Approaching a young person who might be suicidal will look different if you’re a teacher or their parent. However, NAMI, Kelty Mental Health, and the Mayo Clinic offer some general tips on how you can help a young person in your life:
- Seek out resources and information about what behaviors you see and experience. You may also want to reach out to a healthcare/mental health professional for information and guidance.
- Express to your student or child that you’re worried and open up a dialogue about it. Tell them what you’ve noticed and what makes you worried.
- Ask them directly if they’ve considered suicide and show your concern and care for them.
- Talk to your child’s school if you’re a parent, or reach out to the school counselor if you’re a teacher, to see what resources are available at school. Teachers should call the school counselor and collaborate on helping their student.
- Be understanding and respectful with your child or student and avoid getting angry or upset.
- Be persistent in reaching out and showing your support. Challenges with mental health are ongoing, and your continuous support and care can go a long way.
- If you believe a child might attempt suicide, don’t leave them alone and seek out professional help and assistance immediately by calling or texting 911 or a suicide prevention helpline.
- Seek out mental health or other support for yourself. The care of someone with suicidal thoughts can be challenging, and you may experience “compassion fatigue.” Going to counseling both individually or as a family can be very useful.
- Ensure the entire family is supported. Parents should have open and honest conversations with their spouses, co-parent(s), and/or other children so that they’re also supported through the challenges.
As previously mentioned, teachers and school staff should keep an eye on each other—these tips also apply to helping other adults.
Steps Young People Can Take to Help Suicidal Friends
Most importantly, if you believe that your friend might take their life soon, reach out to an adult immediately and let them know so they can find appropriate resources to help your friend.
Being a kid or a teenager can be hard. If you have a friend who you think might be considering suicide, there are things you can do to help them out. But it’s important to know that regardless of what happens, someone attempting or completing suicide is never your fault. However, you do have the power to try to intervene in the best way you can. The worst thing you risk by reaching out is losing a friendship; it’s worth it if the alternative is losing your friend permanently.
The signs a friend may be experiencing suicidal thoughts can be found above.
As a friend, you often see more of your friend’s behaviors than their parents or other adults might, or they may be more willing to open up to you. If you notice that your friend might have suicidal thoughts, here are some ways you can help:
- If you think someone may be suicidal, ask them directly: Are you thinking about suicide? Do you have a plan?
- Never promise to keep this a secret.
- Don’t deny their feelings by saying things like “it’s not that bad,” “other people have it worse,” or changing the subject. Reassure them things can get better with the appropriate help.
- Always assume they’re telling the truth if they admit to suicidal feelings, self-harm, or substance abuse. Even if you think “they’re just doing this for attention,” keep those thoughts to yourself and take action.
- Offer to come with them to tell their parents or a teacher as moral support. If they refuse to tell someone, you need to, but giving them the option to have that power is often helpful.
- If you see changes in a peer’s behavior or expressions of suicidal thoughts on social media, take screenshots. These screenshots are useful when you reach out to an adult for support, as you can show them why you’re concerned. It’s important not to share these screenshots publicly.
- If you’re with your friend when they express these thoughts, don’t leave them alone—text an adult for assistance or call or text 911 (but 911 texting isn’t available in all areas).
- You may want to talk to a counselor to help process your own feelings—helping others can be mentally taxing.
Steps You Can Take if You Feel Suicidal
If you realize you’re considering suicide, here are some steps to get help for yourself.
- Reach out to a trusted person in your life. Let them know that you’re worried about your mental health and ask for their help. You might find that some loved ones may have difficulty understanding the seriousness of your situation. Know that their seeming lack of concern doesn’t come from lack of care for you, but more so as a form of self-protection. Regardless of the initial response, keep asking others for help.
- If you’re a young person, reach out to a trusted adult such as a teacher, school counselor, or parent.
- Call a suicide crisis helpline. This is especially important if you feel like you might attempt very soon. Operators on these hotlines are trained to offer you support at any hour of the day.
- Go to your local emergency room or mental health department. If you’re in an immediate crisis, there are staff on hand to take steps to keep you safe. Local mental health departments often offer help on a sliding cost scale.
- Seek out ongoing mental health support. Going to a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist is going to be essential to maintain long-term mental health. They can offer guidance, resources, and in some cases, prescribe medication. Psychology Today has listings for mental health professionals in each state.
What to Do if a Young Person Attempts or Completes Suicide
This topic isn’t something anyone wants to talk or think about. Even with interventions, some young people attempt or complete suicide, and adults are at a loss about how to talk to their children or students about what happened. Suicides are often considered “contagious;” as mentioned, while merely talking about suicide won’t make suicidal thoughts appear, seeing others complete it successfully can encourage others with those thoughts to attempt to follow through. Therefore, it’s essential that other community members are given space to process, discuss, and seek help.
When a person attempts or dies by suicide, their friends may feel confused, guilty, angry, and afraid. Even if they have no history of depression or anxiety, these issues could be triggered by the event.
A few things teachers and parents can do when their child loses a friend or classmate to suicide, according to The Jed Foundation, Colorado Public Radio, and the Child Mind Institute, include:
- Team up with one another—teachers and parents shouldn’t be giving mixed messages.
- If you’re a parent and you find out your school is stigmatizing mental illness, vilifying the student, or that students are mocking the peer who completed suicide or that person’s friends, contact administration immediately.
- If you’re a teacher and find out a parent is doing one of the above, contact the school counselor for advice on how to proceed.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep those lines open and accept students at face value. If they say they’re fine, continue to keep an eye on them, but don’t press or make it seem like they feel said. They may be fine, at least for the moment. If they say they’re angry, depressed, guilty, or anything else, talk them through that.
- Make it clear that this isn’t their fault, no matter what came before.
- Schools should make counselors available and consider forming a support group for the student’s friends.
- Don’t pretend it didn’t happen or change the subject when your child wants to talk.
- Talk about grief. Tell the students no two people grieve the same way, that there is no right or wrong way to feel (including finding joy in life), and that there is no time limit on grief—you don’t need to just “get over it.”
- Help them find therapy if needed. School counselors and social workers can provide these services or resources for outside ones.
- Try to keep the routine the student had before as much as possible.
- As an adult, seek support for yourself—you don’t want to put any of your sadness on the young people or make them feel they need to support you.
- Keep an eye out for suicidal behaviors or signs of depression or substance abuse.
Suicide Prevention and Support Resources
There are many resources for those who are considering suicide or supporting those who are doing so. Below, you can find resources divided by who they’re best for—though all resources are good for all people—as well as helplines.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Crisis Text Line: A resource where you can send a text to be immediately connected to a crisis counselor. (Text HOME to 741741)
- IMALIVE: Provides education and awareness resources as well as offers a crisis hotline and online network of volunteers certified in crisis intervention (Hotline: 1-800-273-8255)
- National Suicide Prevention Line: This helpline is both for people who fear they might attempt suicide themselves or have a friend or loved one who may make a suicide attempt. (Helpline number: 1-800-273-8255)
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: The AFSP is a national organization whose mission is to save lives and bring hope to people affected by suicide through funding research, providing educational resources, advocating for mental health and suicide prevention strategies, and supporting survivors of suicide loss.
- BetterHelp: This site offers therapy for individuals, couples, and teens in an accessible and flexible way. While sessions will have a fee, you can find discounts such as through podcasts.
- Local Mental Health Offices/Divisions: Your county and state mental health offices are an essential local resource that can offer location-specific recommendations for assistance and potentially in-house mental health services.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI provides resources around mental illness, conducts advocacy, and provides support and education. NAMI has local affiliate offices all around the United States (search for your local NAMI affiliate here).
- National Institute of Mental Health: As one of the National Institutes of Health, the NIMH provides information about suicide and suicide prevention as well as conducts and disseminates research about suicide.
- Self-Injury Outreach & Support: SiOS provides resources and support services for individuals who are engaging in (or might engage in) self-harm and their loved ones and educators.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA provides a helpline and resources for people who are affected by substance abuse. They also offer training for practitioners and disseminate research.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: The center provides informational resources, programs, and trainings based on evidence-based suicide prevention practices.
- TalkSpace: TalkSpace is an excellent resource to connect with a mental health professional remotely and easily through various modes of communication. While this comes at a cost, it can be less expensive than in-person sessions, and you can find discount codes through podcasts or other means.
- To Write Love on Her Arms: This is a movement dedicated to creating hope in people who are experiencing hopelessness.
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide—Parent Resources: The SPTS provides resources and presentations for parents to help prevent teen suicide.
- THRIVE App – Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine: The THRIVE (Teen Health Resources, Information and Vaccine Education) app was created to empower parents to have an open and honest dialogue about important health topics—including suicide prevention—with their children.
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide—Educator Resources: The SPTS provides evidence-based training for educators as well as resources for parents and teens to prevent youth suicide prevention programs nationwide.
- The JED Foundation: JED provides health-focused resources for teens and young adults to help them thrive as adults.
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide—Teen Resources: SPTS offers resources to teens, including a crisis helpline, mental health resources, and a youth wellness summit to help prevent teen suicides.
- The Trevor Project: Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth.